Following a nutrient-dense diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods may help some people manage their anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety is a widespread condition, affecting millions of people globally. Symptoms vary, and some people experience them only now and then. However, someone who experiences symptoms for 6 months or longer may have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
GAD has psychological and physical symptoms such as:
3. excessive worry about everyday events and problems
5. difficulty concentrating
6. issues with personal, social, and work relationships
7. heart palpitations and elevated heart rate
8. muscle tension
9. chest tightness
Doctors often treat GAD with a combination of treatments, including talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medications. Sometimes, these conventional treatments do not work long-term. However, some research suggests that proper nutrition may help improve symptoms.
Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions, affecting approximately 7.3% of the global population.
It’s an umbrella term used to describe various disorders — such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and phobias — and is generally characterized by constant feelings of tension, worry, and nervousness that can interfere with daily life.
In many cases, medication is often required as a main course of treatment. However, there are several strategies you can also use to help reduce anxiety symptoms, from exercising to breathing techniques.
Additionally, there are many foods you can eat that may help support brain function and lower the severity of your symptoms, mostly due to their brain-boosting properties.
Transitioning to a healthier dietary pattern rich in nutrients may help ease anxiety symptoms in some people. Overall dietary intake, along with therapy and medication, can be a helpful tool for anxiety management. Consuming the following foods may help reduce anxiety in some people.
1. Fatty fish
Omega-3-rich foods contain either alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) or two essential fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
A small study on 24 people with substance misuse problems found that EPA and DHA supplementation resulted in reduced levels of anxiety. However, supplements generally contain a more concentrated form of nutrients than foods do.
A 2018 review found that reduced anxiety symptoms were associated with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid treatment. The effects were stronger in participants with clinical anxiety symptoms.
Salmon and sardines are also among the few foods that contain vitamin D.
Researchers are increasingly linking vitamin D deficiency to mood disorders such as anxiety.
Research has linked low levels of vitamin D in the blood to depression and anxiety traits, though more studies are needed. People with vitamin D deficiency should consider taking high-dose supplements rather than eating fatty fish alone.
Chamomile is an herb that may help reduce anxiety.
It contains both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may help lower inflammation associated with anxiety.
Though the mechanisms aren’t clear, chamomile is believed to help regulate neurotransmitters related to moods such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
It may also help regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, a central part of the body’s stress response.
Some studies have examined the association between chamomile extract and anxiety relief.
One 38-week randomized study in 179 people with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) experienced a significantly greater reduction in symptoms after consuming 1,500 milligrams of chamomile extract per day compared to those who did not.
Another older 2012 study found similar results, noting that those who consumed chamomile extract for 8 weeks experienced reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Though, the study’s low sample size could not provide enough statistical power to demonstrate cause-and-effect.
While these results are promising, most studies have been conducted on chamomile extract. More recent research is necessary to evaluate the anti-anxiety effects of chamomile tea, which is most commonly consumed.
Egg yolks, especially from pasture-raised hens, are another good source of vitamin D.
Eggs are also an excellent source of protein. They are complete proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids the body needs for growth and development.
Eggs also contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps create serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter found in the brain, bowels, and blood platelets that helps regulate mood, sleep, memory, and behavior.
Serotonin is thought to improve brain function and relieve anxiety. However, it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning food and treatments containing serotonin do not supply serotonin directly but can trigger chemical reactions boosting serotonin in the brain.
Some studies suggest that diet and gut microbiota could play a role in preventing and treating symptoms related to anxiety. More research is needed to confirm whether this is possible.
Turmeric is a spice that contains curcumin — a compound studied for its role in promoting brain health and preventing anxiety disorders.
Known for its high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin may help to prevent damage to brain cells related to chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.
Moreover, animal studies suggest curcumin may increase the conversion of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — an omega-3 found in plants — to DHA more effectively and increase DHA levels in the brain.
One double-blind, randomized study in 80 people with diabetes found daily supplementation of nano-curcumin — a smaller, more bioavailable form of curcumin — for 8 weeks resulted in significantly lower anxiety scores compared to a placebo.
In another small, randomized crossover study, consuming 1 gram of curcumin per day for 30 days was shown to significantly lower anxiety scores, compared to a placebo.
Though promising, most studies observed the effects of curcumin supplementation rather than obtaining curcumin from turmeric. Therefore, more research in this area is needed.
That said, incorporating turmeric into your diet is certainly worth a try. To increase curcumin absorption, try pairing it with black pepper.
5. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of potassium, which helps regulate electrolyte balance and manage blood pressure. An older 2008 study found that lower potassium and magnesium levels were associated with high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that the adrenal glands release.
Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of the mineral zinc. One study carried out on 100 female high school students found that serum zinc levels were inversely related to mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. These results suggest that increased serum levels of zinc could improve mood disorders in some people.
Zinc is essential for brain and nerve development. The largest storage sites of zinc in the body are in the brain regions involved with emotions.
6. Dark chocolate
Experts have long suspected that dark chocolate might help reduce stress and anxiety.
Some research has found that dark chocolate or cocoa may improve mood via the gut-brain axis. However, many of the existing studies on this subject are observational, so it is important to interpret the results with caution.
Although it is still unclear how dark chocolate may improve mood or stress, dark chocolate is a rich source of polyphenols, especially flavonoids. One study suggests that flavonoids might reduce neuroinflammation and cell death in the brain as well as improve blood flow.
Chocolate has a high content of tryptophan, which the body uses to turn into mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain.
People with magnesium deficiency should consider taking high-dose supplements rather than eating dietary sources alone.
When choosing dark chocolate, aim for 70% cacao or more. Dark chocolate still contains added sugars and fats, so a small serving of 1–3 grams (g) is appropriate.
7. Green tea
Green tea contains an amino acid called theanine, which has been subject to increasing scrutiny because of its potential effects on mood disorders. Theanine has anti-anxiety and calming effects and may increase the production of serotonin and dopamine.
A 2017 review found that 200 mg of theanine improved self-reported relaxation and calmness while reducing tension in human trials.
8. Brazil nuts
Other nuts, animal products, and vegetables, such as mushrooms and soybeans, are excellent sources of selenium as well.
It is important not to consume too much selenium, as it can cause side effects. The recommended upper limit for selenium for an adult is 400 micrograms per day. Be careful not to take high-dose supplements or eat more than three or four Brazil nuts per day.
Brazil nuts and other nuts are also good sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant. Antioxidants can be beneficial for treating anxiety, and some research has shown that low levels of vitamin E may lead to anxiety in children.
A rodent study found that Brazil nuts can help address anxiety and obesity in mice. However, more human studies are necessary.
According to a 2017 clinical review, yogurt and other dairy products may also produce an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Some research suggests that chronic inflammation may be partly responsible for anxiety, stress, and depression.
Including yogurt and other fermented foods in the diet can benefit the natural gut bacteria and may reduce anxiety and stress.
Almonds are a great source of several nutrients thought to promote brain function, including vitamin E and healthy fats.
In fact, some animal studies have found that almonds could reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which could be involved in the development of anxiety.
Almonds may also offer other mood-boosting properties.
For instance, one study found that increased consumption of nuts, including almonds, was associated with decreased symptoms of depression.
Another study in 3,172 adults showed that males who consumed the highest amount of nuts were 66% less likely to experience anxiety than those who consumed the lowest amount. However, this association was not observed for females.
Therefore, more high-quality studies are needed to understand how almonds may impact mood and anxiety.
Blueberries are high in vitamin C and other antioxidants, such as flavonoids, that have been studied for their ability to improve brain health and relieve anxiety.
One 4-week study found that daily supplementation with wild blueberries was linked to fewer self-reported symptoms of depression in 64 adolescents.
Some animal studies also suggest that certain compounds found in blueberries may reduce oxidative stress and ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Plus, some studies have even found that increased intake of fruits, such as blueberries, may be tied to a lower risk of anxiety.
Still, additional studies are needed to evaluate the effects of blueberries on anxiety.
It is best to eat a varied and balanced diet that includes high-quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Aim for whole foods, vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and especially fish. Other foods that may help include:
1. Turkey, bananas, and oats: These are good sources of the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in the body and may promote relaxation and anxiety relief.
2. Meat and dairy products: These provide high-quality protein including essential amino acids that produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, potentially improving mental health.
3. Chia seeds: Chia seeds are another good source of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help with anxiety.
4. Citrus fruits and bell peppers: These fruits are rich in vitamin C, which has antioxidant properties that may help reduce inflammation and prevent damage to cells that may promote anxiety.
Though these foods may support your mental well-being, they should not replace any medications or other therapies prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Eating a healthy diet should provide all the nutrients needed for healthy brain function.
A nutritious diet that contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, vitamins, and minerals might help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
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